Blessings in a Garden

Series: Israel 2022 – Mount of Beatitudes

I come to the garden alone

While the dew is still on the roses

And the voice I hear

Falling on my ear,

The Son of God discloses….6

We have entered a beautiful garden on a hillside on the Korazim Plateau overlooking the Sea of Galilee. There are roses blooming along the walkway, birds flitting among the trees chirping and singing, bees and other pollinators buzzing among the blossoms adding a quiet hum to the peacefulness of the site. Even though it is February, the middle of winter, and there is snow on Mount Hermon to the north, here it feels like spring.

This “mount” we’ve come to is Mount Eremos and Har Ha Osher in Hebrew.1  I suppose it could hardly be called a mountain at all. This “mount” has a negative altitude. It is 200 meters above the Sea of Galilee but still 25 meters below sea level.  Mount Eremos is one of the lowest summits in the world.

The Franciscan chapel that dominates the garden was built in 1937-38 over the ruins of a Byzantine chapel at the site that was used from the 4th through the 7th century.  It was the practice of the early Christian church to build chapels at sites in Israel associated with Jesus and His ministry. Only a few traces of the ancient monastery and cistern remain at the site.1

The Franciscan Chapel on the Mount of Beatitudes

The “new” chapel was designed by an Italian named Antonio Barluzzi commissioned by the Italian Mission Society…. with funding from Benito Mussolini…. yes, that Mussolini.2

It is a lovely chapel built with 8 sides in a Neo-Byzantine style. It has marble veneer casing the lower interior walls and includes gold mosaic in the dome over the altar.

The golden dome inside the chapel.

The floor inside is circular around a central altar and includes mosaics for 7 virtues. Each stained-glass window is dedicated to and shows a single Beatitude written in Latin.2

For this is the Mount of the Beatitudes. While there is a 20th century chapel and garden with views all the way down to the Sea of Galilee, there is very little to identify this hillside as the one where Jesus sat and spoke to his disciples and a multitude of followers some two thousand years ago…nothing at all from the first century to commemorate what is today called “the Sermon on the Mount”.  

The floor mosaics around the altar show 7 virtues
and this one which says, “We adore you, Christ”.

The Sermon on the Mount is detailed in the Gospels, Matthew 5, 6, & 7 and Luke 6. It is the longest single discourse by Jesus memorialized in the Christian Bible. It is probably the most famous and most quoted of all the sermons recorded in the Bible or anywhere else for that matter. These three chapters in Matthew and corresponding chapters in Luke also include the “Lord’s Prayer” which absolutely has to be known by every Christian in the world today. (Okay, maybe the 23rd Psalm would be in the running for most famous and memorized passage, but I think it holds a distant second at best to the Lord’s Prayer.)8

Gateway overlooking the hillside of Mount Eremos

It may also be one of the most mis-quoted and maybe misunderstood passages in scripture. While reading and researching the Beatitudes (in both Matthew and in Luke where some call it the Sermon on the Plain4), I was amazed at how many different interpretations and applications I found. After two thousand years, theologians are still trying to understand what Jesus was saying that day on the hillside where He sat and taught those who followed Him.

At first read, it seems so simple…as is the way with most deeply complicated things. The Beatitudes include 9 blessings that focus on justice, faith, fortitude, hope, temperance, humility, compassion, meekness, charity, peace, and love… of course, love. Did Jesus not always preach love?

Mural inside the chapel showing Jesus teaching His followers.

I have read several translations but the pure poetry of the “blessed” verses in the King James Version (KJV) is what I grew up with and what I tend to remember.

3“Blessed are the poor in spirit,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4Blessed are those who mourn,

for they will be comforted.

5Blessed are the meek,

for they will inherit the earth.

6Blessed are those who hunger

and thirst for righteousness,

for they will be filled.

7Blessed are the merciful,

for they will be shown mercy.

8Blessed are the pure in heart,

for they will see God.

9Blessed are the peacemakers,

for they will be called sons of God.

10Blessed are those who are persecuted

because of righteousness,

for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11Blessed are you when people insult you,

 persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil

against you because of Me.

12Rejoice and be glad,

 because great is your reward in heaven;

for in the same way

they persecuted the prophets before you.

Matthew 5

The koine Greek word “makarios” used for Blessed can also mean “happy” or “fulfilled”.7 Some see the Beatitudes as a guide for living for Christians under the New Covenant.  Would that I could follow these tenets and be perfectly happy and fulfilled – perfectly righteous – all on my own! But, alas, I cannot. No one can. That was the point for the Jews in the first century and it is still relevant for all Christians today. You cannot do it on your own – the standard is too high — you need help – you need a Savior.

I walked there, in the garden on the hillside where Jesus (our Savior) might actually have come and sat down to teach this lesson. Scattered throughout the garden amongst the flowers were large plaques showing the Beatitudes in different languages of the world. 

There are other engraved stones about that have a single Beatitude inviting contemplation of just one “blessing” at a time.

It is a place for meditation, a place to consider those “blessed” words. A place to pray and to talk to God and to listen for that still small voice as God responds.

“And He walks with me, and He talks with me,

And He tells me I am His own,

And the joy we share as we tarry there,

None other, has ever, known!” 5&6

Dr. Bremer from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) teaches at the Mount of the Beatitudes.

Scriptural Sources:

  1. Matthew 5:3-12
  2. Luke 6:20-23

Sources and References:

  1. Mount of Beatitudes – Wikipedia
  2. Church of the Beatitudes – Wikipedia
  3. New Testament places associated with Jesus – Wikipedia
  4. Ministry of Jesus – Wikipedia
  5. In The Garden – Lyrics, Hymn Meaning and Story (godtube.com)
  6. In the Garden, C Austin Miles, 1912 (Public Domain)
  7. Strong’s Concordance 3107, Interlinear Bible, Greek – “makarios”, Helps Word Studies 3107
  8. Sermon on the Mount – Wikipedia
  9. The Holy Land for Christian Travelers, John A. Beck, 2017, Baker Books, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Mount of the Beatitudes, p218 (This book can be purchased on Amazon.com)

ICYMI (In case you missed it) – Previous blogs in the Israel 2022 series:

Israel 2022: Pinch Yourself – April 4, 2022

Israel 2022: Caesarea Maritima – April 11, 2022

Israel 2022: Contested on Mount Carmel – April 20, 2022

Israel 2022: In This Valley – April 30, 2022

Israel 2022: Sea of Galilee – May 9, 2022

Israel 2022: A Very Old Boat – May 31, 2022

Israel 2022: A Blessing & A Curse – Capernaum – June 20, 2022

Israel 2022: One Little Boy Named David – July 5, 2022

Israel 2022: The Gates of Hell – July 23, 2022

The Gates of Hell

Series: Israel 2022 – Caesarea Philippi

 “Who do you say that I am?”

Jesus asked the question of his apostles – those closest to him during His ministry on this earth – as they traveled thru the towns around Caesarea Philippi in northern Israel. (Mark 8:27-30; Matthew 16:13-20; Luke 9:18-21)

Caesarea Philippi. This was not a Jewish town or religious center. I’m not even sure that there was a synagogue in the area at that time. (There are old ruins of a synagogue nearby but I was not able to find a date for the ruins.) This was not a place you’d expect the Messiah or even a prophet to visit. It was known throughout the region as a pagan worship center of the Gentiles in Hellenistic times called Paneas. It was a “high place” set aside for worship of the god, Pan. (In Arabic, the name is Banias; hence, the name of the park today.)

Caesarea Philippi is a beautiful park today in Israel’s Golan Heights at the foot of Mount Hermon. It is set aside as an archaeological site and nature preserve. 

When we arrived, we took a walk through a wooded area to the Lebanese Restaurant for lunch. It was a lovely sunny day, and the park was filled with families enjoying the afternoon. Lunch was excellent, by the way. If you ever visit Banias, do try to have a meal at the restaurant. The setting along the stream is lovely and the food was very good.

Lebanese Restaurant in Hermon Stream Nature Reserve
(Photo from Google Maps)

After lunch, we headed up to the old sanctuary walking along the stream, Nahal Hermon in Hebrew and Banias River in Arabic.3 It was so unexpectedly peaceful that I fell in love with this place and hoped we’d stay so I could just wander around for the rest of the day. (Alas, we did not.)

Nahal Hermon/Banias River

We arrived at Paneas at the headwaters of the spring that fed the stream and is also one of three tributaries that feeds into the Jordan River. I was just amazed at the sight.

Paneas at Caesarea Philippi – First Look

In front of us, the ancient Bamah or, “high place”, worship site.8 This had been a cultic sanctuary since the beginning of time, I suppose.  There was a red and tan and black colored cliff right in front of us that is 230’ (70m) long by 131’ (40m) tall. On one side is a large cave that is 66’ (20m) wide by 49’ (15m) tall. Along the front of the cliff is an elevated terrace about 263’ (80m) long on which were built temples and altars for worship of the gods. The cliffside was carved with niches that had once held statues and idols.

In front of the cave was the rushing waters of the spring. In the past, that spring had gushed forth from the mouth of the cave which may have been much larger and even more impressive than it is today.

According to Josephus, the Jewish historian from Roman times:

“… the place is called Panium, where is a top of a mountain that is raised to an immense height, and at its side, beneath, or at its bottom, a dark cave opens itself; within which there is a horrible precipice, that descends abruptly to a vast depth; it contains a mighty quantity of water, which is immovable; and when any body lets down any thing to measure the depth of the earth beneath the water, no length of cord is sufficient to reach it …7

During the time of Christ, it was a site dedicated to the Greek god Pan. Paneas had been established by the Greeks sometime after Alexander the Great had conquered the area in the 3rd century BC .1 But the Hebrews had also worshipped Baal Gad (“Master Luck” or god of good fortune) at the site in the past.1 Joshua 11:17, 12:7, and 13:5 references a high place in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon.

The Court of Pan & the Nymphs –
The carved niches would have held statues of the pagan gods.

The place must have been quite ominous in ancient times. To the first Greeks who came here, the site resembled the legendary River Styx, the boundary between the earth and the underworld. They thought this must be a place of death and it came to be thought of as the “Gates of Hades” or, “Hell”.10 In the 3rd century BC, the Ptolemaic kings built a cultic center here and as noted, the Hellenists replaced all the local deities with Pan and the cave itself was dedicated to him.

The Grotto of Pan During Biblical times, the cave was much bigger and the spring waters would have gushed out of the mouth of the cave. The ancient Greeks in the area saw this as the entrance to the underworld, Hades.
A closer view of the large rock inside the Grotto of Pan that was possibly used for sacrifices of goats to the god.

You may remember studying Pan during those mostly boring classes in high school on Greek mythology and culture. There were so many that I got them all confused but I thought Pan was the funny one – you know he was the half-human, half-goat that played a flute and hung around with nymphs, one in particular called Echo. He was a god of wild places much revered by shepherds (well, he was part goat after all). I always think of Pan drinking lots of wine and carousing around. But I read he was a troublemaker and our word, pandemonium, comes from Pan’s name.4

Statue of Pan – This photo was taken in Maryland (USA) at Ladew Topiary Gardens

That’s pretty much all that was happening here for a few centuries – lots of pilgrimages being made to the cave and lots of goats being sacrificed. Greek empires faded and, ultimately, the Roman empire came on strong.

During the time of Christ, the area had been placed under Herod the Great’s rule. When Herod the Great died in 4 BC, his “kingdom” was divided into a tetrarch and split between his three sons. One son, Philip II, inherited governance of the northern areas and founded the city called Caesarea Philippi. After Philip II died in 34 AD, his nephew Herod Agrippa I assumed rule over Caesarea Philippi. Enough history.1

A view of what the site would have looked like at the time that Jesus visited.

I keep asking myself why Jesus would come here?  Why travel this far north from Galilee where there were not too many Jewish communities? There are ruins of an old synagogue nearby but I’m not sure it was there during the 1st century AD. According to Google Maps, the distance from Capernaum on the Galilee to Caesarea Philippi is about 54 kilometers (33.55 miles) and would take about 12 hours straight-up walking…. maybe 2-3 days if you’re eating and sleeping along the way. That’s quite a distance. Scripture tells us that Jesus made one trip to Caesarea Philippi, and it was from here that He began His last trip to Jerusalem (which is another 180 kilometers/111.84 miles to the south).10

Screenshot from Google – Galilee to Caesarea Philippi

Was He here just to see this place famous for pagan worship?

Many Gentiles came here to worship and make offerings to Pan but why would a Jewish teacher come here? He spent very little time in Gentile cities overall. So, why here? If you’re looking for an answer, I do not have one. It puzzles me. But it was against this backdrop that Jesus posed that question to Peter.

Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 6:15)

Peter answered,

You are the Christ, the son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)

Standing there looking at the cliff with all the niches carved out to hold pagan idols, I wondered what Peter and the other apostles thought about knowing they were standing right there in the presence of God… the real one.  No silly half-goats or wood nymphs playing flutes and causing trouble…. but the actual Messiah, the one who came to heal and to save all of mankind was there with them. For three years, He had traveled around teaching, healing the sick, calming storms, and even raising the dead. And now He was nearing the end of His ministry. Why had He come here?

Scripture tells us that Jesus held these conversations with the apostles in/around Caesarea Philippi. (Matthew 16:13) I do not know exactly where He stood when He called Peter “the stone” and told his followers that He would build His church on “the rock”. (Matthew 16:18) But, right where we stood looking at that awesome cliffside where the pagans made sacrifices to save their souls thinking that the cave was indeed the entrance to the underworld…to Hades, I can imagine Jesus telling the apostles that the “Gates of Hell” would not prevail against His church…the Church that He would build on the foundation of His own broken body.

The temples and altars at Caesarea Philippi are all gone. The spring no longer gushes out of the mouth of the cave but flows out further down the hill. The niches no longer hold idols. No more offerings are made to false gods. No one anywhere thinks of Pan as anything but a little made-up creature from the Greek myths they studied in high school.

But the church that Christ raised up…the church that He built…that church remains strong and continues to grow even today. Indeed! It will prevail for it is built upon the rock that is Jesus Christ himself and will continue forever and ever.

In the 3rd century AD, a Byzantine Church was built over the Temple of Augustus in front of the Cave. This photo is a detail of the floor mosaics from the church. Note the crosses in the circles in the mosaic design.

Sources for Historical Information About Caesarea Philippi:

  1. Caesarea Philippi – Wikipedia
  2. Baal – Wikipedia
  3. Banias River – Wikipedia
  4. Banyas – Archaeology in Israel (jewishmag.co.il)
  5. Banias – Wikipedia
  6. Altar Dedicated to Pan Unearthed in Golan Heights – Archaeology Magazine
  7. Banias Temples – Sanctuary of Pan – BibleWalks 500+ sites
  8. High Places, Altars and the Bamah – Biblical Archaeology Society
  9. Banias Springs – Israel Travel Centre
  10. The Holy Land for Christian Travelers, John A. Beck, 2017, Baker Books, Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, MI, www.bakerbooks.com , USA, Caesarea Philippi, pages 179-181(This book can be purchased on Amazon.com)

ICYMI (In case you missed it) – Previous blogs in the Israel 2022 series:

Israel 2022: Pinch Yourself – April 4, 2022

Israel 2022: Caesarea Maritima – April 11, 2022

Israel 2022: Contested on Mount Carmel – April 20, 2022

Israel 2022: In This Valley – April 30, 2022

Israel 2022: Sea of Galilee – May 9, 2022

Israel 2022: A Very Old Boat – May 31, 2022

Israel 2022: A Blessing & A Curse – Capernaum – June 20, 2022

Israel 2022: One Little Boy Named David – July 5, 2022